Baker Street Irregular

Fans of Sherlock Holmes might remember the occasional scene in which a scruffy urchin appears out of nowhere, speaks briefly to Holmes, and then disappears again. Holmes then solves the case, and explains to the stunned Watson that he cultivated the urchins as sources of information. They are his “Baker Street Irregulars.”

For those who prefer a more recent image, fans of James Bond movies will remember the endless parade of agents who show up long enough to give Bond some critical piece of information or equipment. Unlike Holmes’s informants, the mortality rate amongst Bond’s “irregulars” tends to be awkwardly high. Star Trek, of course, was famous for its “Red Shirts,” the red uniformed security officers who would always die within minutes after appearing on camera. In all these cases, the character shows up on camera just long enough to move the plot forward and then disappears. In a very real sense, they have no existence before they are needed and no existence after their function is fulfilled.

When they are present, they exist only to meet the needs of the story, or at least of the hero.

Of course, these examples are all fiction. What bearing could they possibly have on reality? When I run predictive scenario management training exercises, a type of serious game, I find the same behavior manifests: many participants tend to assume that the other players in the scenario are only there to support their goals. They don’t quite recognize that each participant has their own goals and their own needs that they are trying to meet. As a result, conflict often erupts between different individuals and groups who each assumed that the other individuals and groups were present only as “red shirts.”

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Comments (2)

SarahAugust 26th, 2010 at 11:39 am

Excellent, Steve. In fact, I’m coming to believe that many people think the rest of the world is only important insofar as it affects their ability to meet their own goals. I love the “Baker Street Irregulars” comment. I think maturity is really “getting it” that others are people too. My poli-sci and psychology friends seem to get this intuitively. Engineers, not so much. WAY not so much. So not-so-much in fact, that one wonders whether engineers are kind of similar to those with Asperger’s syndrome…oh wait yeah, that one is well known.

Thanks for explaining this in an understandable way.

SteveAugust 26th, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Hi Sarah,

You’ve hit it on the head. What makes it hard for people to “get” that other people are important, with their own goals, etc, is that when you’re constantly in a high stress environment, your brain starts to close in. The greater the level of stress, the more the tendency to start viewing others as only a means to accomplishing your own goals. I commented on a radio interview recently something along the lines of “in jujitsu, we use fear to make someone’s brain shut down. Businesses try to use fear to motivate. What’s wrong here?”

Interestingly, I did a leadership and negotiation serious game with a bunch of psychologists and saw many of them forget their relationship building skills in the heat of the exercise.

It turns out to be much harder to do than we like to think.

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